Rosa Alcalá


English is dirty. Polyamorous. English
wants me. English rides with girls
and with boys. English keeps an open
tab and never sleeps
alone. English is a smooth talker
who makes me say please. It's a bit of role-playing
and I like a good tease. We have a safety word
I keep forgetting. English likes
pet names. English
has a little secret, a past,
another family. English is going to leave them
for me. I've made English a set
of keys. English brings me flowers
stolen from a grave.
English texts me, slips in
as emoticons, goes to all
the mixers. English has rules
but accepts dates last minute. English makes
booty-calls. English makes me want it.
When I was younger, my parents said
keep that English out of our
house. If you leave with that miserable,
don't come back. I said god-willing
in the language of the Inquisition. I climbed out
my window, but always got
caught. English had a hooptie
that was the joint. Now my mother goes gaga
over our cute babies. Together
English and I wrote my father's
obituary. How many times
have I said it's over, and English just laughs
and says, c'mon, señorita, let's go for
Chinese. We always end up
in a hotel where we give
fake names, and as I lay my head
to hear my lover breathe
I dream of Sam Patch plunging
into water, a poem
English gave me
that had been given
to another.


* * * 

Do you value the examination of the political in poetry? If so, what experience(s) taught you its importance?

I understand these question two ways: Do I value poetry that takes a political stance or that is explicitly political? And, do I value political readings—interpretations that take into account what is political within the poem (even if the poems are not intended as political)? I'd say yes on both fronts. Even love poems enter into a politics (Robert Creeley once said that the smallest political unit is two people). Since I am particularly interested in the ways class intersects with other markers of identity, I sometimes—even unintentionally—read poems as revealing class position, either the speaker's or the poet's. Although I do believe to some extent in universal experiences, no experience can be expressed in a universal way. As for explicitly political poems, I'm quite fond of Juan Felipe Herrera for his humor, his approach to performance, his incisive commentary, the inventiveness of his language, and his ability to engage us—the readers, the audience—in his message and viewpoint.

If you write about politics frequently, what issues, difficulties, advantages and disadvantages do you negotiate? Which poets do you draw on when conducting such negotiations?

I've been working on a long piece about Occupy Wall Street. One of the difficulties is that everyone is writing about Occupy Wall Street. Someone mentioned that at the Poetry Project New Year's Marathon there was an abundance of these types of poems. So, there's this way in which certain subjects/situations become overexposed in poetry: the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc., and only a few poems come out of that response that are worthwhile, that really get to something important, and that will perhaps outlast those situations. The overexposure in the media itself becomes a problem, too, in that the poems are framed by, and even have difficulty eliding, the barrage of imagery and messages that accompany the particular event the poet is trying to address. In my case, because I was an uninsured Wall Street office temp for many years, I imagined myself walking through the same streets where these protests are taking place, and I became particularly interested in the ways women—and women's bodies—were framed, exploited, portrayed in coverage of the occupation. Meanwhile, my mother, who started working when she was 14, is becoming older, and I worry about things like Medicaid and Medicare. All these things for me—the fate of the elderly, the uninsured, the exploited, the worker, the immigrant, the student—are at stake in these protests. In other words, I'm trying to model this poem on the work of those poets who I feel never try to make easy or linear connections between larger political and economic structures, policies, and histories, and how they affect real lives; in which the message is not singular, but as complex as the situation it is commenting on. I'm thinking of poets such as Claudia Rankine, Susan Briante, Rachel Levitsky, Craig Santos Perez, Rodrigo Toscano, C.D. Wright, Farid Matuk, Mark Nowak, and Ammiel Alcalay.

What 'responsibility' does an artist have to artistically engage his or her own politic?

I'm not sure I'd say that an artist has a responsibility to "engage" his or her own politic. That engagement is always-already. Every aesthetic choice has a built-in ethics and politics, and is the extension of the poets' ethics and politics, which is, quite simply, how he has been shaped in the world and how he chooses to shape his work.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing saying that "[American writers] don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. […] That ignorance is restraining." What do you think? How have recent American poets engaged with or neglected the so-called 'big dialogue' of literature? Is this 'big dialogue' a political one?

I don't get the impression, as a reader of contemporary  U.S. poetry, that this is true. My guess is that he just isn't looking in the right place. I'd be happy to lend him the stack of books on my night table (among them: C.D. Wright's One With Others, Anne Waldman's In the Room of Never Grieve: Collected Poems, and Daniel Borzutsky's The Book of Interfering Bodies).  Whether this big dialogue is a political or a literary one, I don't see how anyone can read books like these and make that statement.

But I'd like to point out that Engdahl also said American writers don't translate enough, and from what I've been witnessing lately, there's seems to be great interest in translation, particularly among young poets (see Borztusky, for example).  Still, there are never enough translations of poetry (nor enough venues to publish them, sufficient resources to support the work of translation, proper recognition given to translators, etc.), especially poetry that challenges our very limited notions of literatures/cultures not our own.

I mention translation in this forum because I believe it is always a political act to translate poetry, but perhaps a way to employ translation in the service of what Sartre refers to as littérature engagée is to commit ourselves to translating and publishing poets/poetry little known in the U.S. (or who upset literary history in some way, or who write in a language less often translated).  We might also translate poets who can give us a perspective on events/developments in their home countries: Greece, Afghanistan, México, Egypt, Iraq, etc.  Langston Hughes, for example, motivated in part by political and aesthetic concerns, translated various contemporaries, including Nicolas Guillén, Gabriela Mistral, Jacques Roumain, and Federico García Lorca (after he was murdered).

Publishing work that originates in languages other than English is another way to enter this "big dialogue"—and this work doesn't necessarily have to originate outside of the U.S. (three of the poets I've translated live or have lived in New York for many years).  I see that the National Poetry Series and The Center @ Miami Dade College have established the Paz Poetry Prize in order to publish a poetry book written in Spanish by someone living in the U.S.  This is a move in the right direction.  

Is there room for romantic or rugged individualism in political poetry (as opposed to a capacious perspective of Whitman or other past poets)? If so, where is its place?

Whitman, to me, feels capacious, romantic, rugged, and individualistic all at once, so I'm not sure I understand this question. And from what I understand, the reception and construction of Whitman in Latin America (through both the original, as well as French and Italian translations) has produced as many Whitmans as perhaps Whitman himself envisioned (See, for example, Josef Raab, "El gran viejo: Walt Whitman in Latin America," CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 3.2 (2001): )

Where do you draw the line between poetry and propaganda? What is the purpose of such a line? Should today's poet be concerned with editorial censorship?

In other words, should poems with a very clear political message be censored? Are all transparently political poems doggerel? Should all poems be judged by the probability that they will stand the test of time? That what they speak of will be relevant in the long run? I find myself feeling a bit resistant to this idea that poetry can't serve different purposes. Sure, there are poems that seem—for any particular reader—completely uninteresting, that lack complexity, that seem to service only the message, and any editor or reader has the right to reject them. But I do think there is room for populist poetry, for poetry that is a call to action. But in general, I prefer political poems that even if their politics are defined, are willing to go "off-message," into murkier, less party-backed areas. I do feel, as William Carlos Williams did, that "I cannot, without an impossible wrench of my understanding, turn it [poetry] into a force directed toward one end, Vote the Communist Ticket, or work for the world revolution [...] I can however see the monumental blockwit of social injustice surrounding me on every side [...] I would give my life freely if I could right them. But who the hell wants my life [...] They don't even want my verse." (qtd. in Gary Lenhart's The Stamp of Class, 9).

What are your thoughts on shifts in the state of the political voice in contemporary poetry, from the early modernist to the beat poets and black arts movement, to today?  Where are we now? Where are we going?

There are less poets going to war, I think. But the writing of war continues, sadly, because war does not cease. When I think of war poetry, I return again to Langston Hughes who went to Spain—alongside many foreign volunteers, including Nicolas Guillén—during its civil war, and reported on it for the Associated Negro Press. Overall, I'm impressed by those moments historically—like the Spanish Civil War—in which some of our best poets—Edwin Rolfe, Muriel Rukeyser—were engaged physically, either in the war or in efforts at home, or who wrote about it. But I'm also interested in the ways that writers have used different approaches to address an issue or support a cause.

According to his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, Hughes sometimes "deliberately wrote  in a reductively democratic language in order to achieve broad propagandistic or political purposes," ("Future Scholarly Projects on Langston Hughes," Black American Literature Forum, 21:3, 1987, p. 308), and perhaps this could be said of some of the poems he wrote from Spain. But he also wrote politically engaged work like Ask Your Mama, which is incredibly complex, multi-layered, and performative. This desire (and freedom) to use different approaches—from a more populist to a more avant-garde approach—depending on the subject matter or intended audience is something I haven't seen in contemporary writers.


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